An Accidental Pilgrim

Heading south from Porte d’ d’Italie. The original intention was to drive to Lyon, where I spent a summer in 1976, the year of what the French still call ‘la grande sècheresse’ when there were no fireworks on July 14 in case of fire. Vagabondage (does this word exist?) has its rewards, however. Three hours down the autoroute  I caught sight of a single sign. “Communauté de Taizé, prochaine sortie”.  I wondered why a tiny hamlet, its significance, perhaps, known only to a relatively small cross-section of population, and miles from anywhere, might warrant its own signage off the highway. On impulse, despite the fact that it was early evening without accommodation booked, I followed a hunch and turned off. It took an hour, getting lost, winding through rolling hills and tiny villages, some with familiar names, like Chardonnay.  As I approached, the number of young pilgrims walking up the hill seemed to increase by the yard. Brother Roger’s original building, acquired seventy years ago, is now dwarfed by a vast, modern structure, slightly reminiscent of the glass-floored church in Capernaum, extended at least twice, flanked by an armada of  large well-organised communal tents and a flotilla of smaller ones. Wooden outbuildings housed barracks, meeting rooms and cookhouses.  I followed the sound of the singing, and overcoming a strong sense of déjà -vu – found myself in a vast covered amphitheatre, dimly lit, listening to the iconic sound of Taizé worship. And this, apparently, was the overflow building. There were at least three onion domes (picture) plus the church itself. Thousands of people sat on the floor, the singing led by a small number of white-robed monks – I had arrived at the beginning of evening prayer. Feeling like a Samaritan at the gate, I stood awkwardly at the door and listened. Services at Taizé are characterised by singing, silence and prayer. During one of the silences, I wandered outside, and found myself outside what appeared to be a crèche – there did seem to be a large number of the congregation inn their 20’s. A calm-looking young woman in a long blue seersucker dress and the obligatory sandals answered my questions, holding the hand of a three year old as she patiently walked him again and again around a tree. “How many people are there here?” I asked. “Oh, this week, about three thousand six hundred”, she replied with a smile. “Is this a special event?” I asked. “Oh, no. Every week the same numbers come”, she said, her German accent making her English sound clipped and rehearsed. “Perhaps six thousand at Easter. If you wish, you can stay.” I didn’t, instead nosed the car down the hill and ate well in Cluny, little changed for five hundred years, beneath the abbey walls. How appropriate.

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